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First Listen: William Onyeabor, 'Who Is William Onyeabor?'

NPR icon by Will Hermes
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If Fela Kuti was a child of James Brown, fellow Nigerian William Onyeabor is something like the next-generation musical offspring of Parliament-Funkadelic. His songs are extended call-and-response disco-funk jams driven by the space-age sound of synthesizers and drum machines — very new tools when Onyeabor was recording in the late '70s and '80s, especially in Africa. After years of existing mainly as secret grail passed between electronic music DJs and other crate diggers, Onyeabor's handful of studio LPs have been licensed and boiled down to a killer compilation by Luaka Bop, the tastemaking world music label started by David Byrne.

So who IS William Onyeabor? Part of the album's conceit is that even the compilers don't fully know. The liner notes, by veteran British journalist Vivien Goldman, note that Onyeabor is a crowned chief in his hometown village of Enugu, Eastern Nigeria, where he lives in "a hidden palace in the woods" and is a booster of the local Christian music scene. But he essentially left his own music career in the '80s, in the wake of the recordings collected here, presumably when he became a born-again Christian.

Indeed, you can hear a moral, preacherly spirit on a lot of the tracks here. "No money can buy good name" he counsels on "Good Name," a lively track driven by a squelchy low-end synthesizer line and a rhythm machine whose chintzy pitter-patter quickly becomes hypnotizing. And "Why Go To War" rides loopy guitar phrases and Asian-flavored keyboard melodies, interrogating world leaders and arguing for peace. "You want small boys to die for you," he sings, "you want another guy to stop a bullet for you / But you'll never like to stop a bullet for another guy." Given the legacy of the Biafran/Nigerian civil war, fairly fresh at the time Onyeabor was recording, these were not abstract notions.

But mostly these are party songs, and in the spirit of disco, they have matters other than politics on their mind. "You better dance your troubles away," Onyeabor demands on the 10-minute boogie anthem "Body and Soul." And on the set's craziest song, "Atomic Bomb," the singer declares "I'm going to explode" while his female backing singers repeat the title over and over. As late Cold War era sexual metaphors go, it's unbeatable.

Unfortunately, this set doesn't include "Better Change Your Mind," a proto-techno jam that takes the USA, Russia and China to task for their narcissism, and which introduced Western listeners to Onyeabor's music when it turned up on the great 2001 compilation Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970s Funky Lagos. But as an overview of one of the most singular acts to come out of a golden era of African pop, Who Is William Onyeabor? is pretty perfect — even if it doesn't quite answer its own question.

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